Majority of workplace health initiatives fail

Study says employers need to focus more on getting rid of underlying factors that contribute to stress, accidents and absenteeism

Nearly two-thirds of initiatives designed to make workplaces healthier fail, according to a study done for Health Canada.

Graham Lowe, a workplace consultant and author of the study, said organizations aren’t devoting the time and effort required to change the safety climate in the workplace. Too many firms simply introduce a program or two and sit back and hope staff will magically transform in response. At the same time, employers are also ignoring underlying organizational factors that contribute to job stress, accidents and absenteeism.

“Maybe the way to start in some organizations to create a really robust healthy workplace is by implementing a fitness program. Maybe that’s what gets everyone’s attention,” he said. “But you can’t stop there. If all you’re doing is introducing another program, it will have a superficial impact. But if it is over time part of a more comprehensive strategy, then it goes much deeper into the organization.”

Organizations need to recognize that, in the medium and long term, what they’re after is transformational change and that can’t be accomplished by taking a few random steps, he said. So implementing an employee assistance plan might be a good first step, and introducing healthy foods in the company cafeteria could be a second step, but neither will achieve long-term success unless they’re part of a comprehensive strategy.

But achieving that long-term success is not easy because there are so many barriers in the way.

“When it comes to trying to create a healthier workplace, that does require a substantial change. And unless there is a strategy that can effectively remove the barriers, nothing is going to happen,” he said.

One of the biggest roadblocks to change is a lack of time, he said. The amount of time it takes to sit down and work through an effective strategy that engages the majority of employees can be daunting, especially when staff already feel crunched. And despite the impression that modern workplaces are constantly forced to deal with change, Lowe said there’s still an enormous amount of inertia, particularly in larger organizations.

“It’s kind of a paradox, because everyone you talk to says, ‘You know, change is a constant in our workplace.’ But what’s happening is that there are certainly many factors that make us feel that lots is changing around us, whether it’s technology, restructuring, changing markets or the changing environment. But when it comes to positive change, such as trying to improve the work environment so that it’s healthier, there are real difficulties doing that.”

Organizations shouldn’t drive programs from the top down, he said. While the support of senior management is crucial, and they must have a say and understand the initiative, an equal amount of pressure needs to come from the bottom up. Otherwise organizations could be hit with the “Dilbert” effect: when top managers are the cheerleaders, negative consequences for the organization’s structure and culture can result. This leads to greater cynicism and can be completely underwhelming and demotivating to employees.

“You need to think of the different groupings that are critical to engage, otherwise nothing is going to happen.”

Organizations need to engage line managers and ensure they understand it’s going to be sustained change. That way, they’ll view it as something that is really going to help meet their goals. Firms dealing with unions need to bring union leadership in at the start, because without union support the program will flop.

“I’ve seen examples where the lack of union support has scuttled healthy workplace initiatives,” said Lowe. “Partly because they were brought in late in the process and therefore were very suspicious about management’s motives.”

In the end, it takes about three to five years for an organization to evaluate itself and transform into a healthy workplace. And, unfortunately, there are no off-the-shelf formulas for success, he said.

For more information about the Health Canada study, Healthy Workplace Strategies: Creating Change and Achieving Results, visit

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